Sabrina Spiher Robinson and her husband Ted Robinson live on a hill in Upper Lawrenceville. From the set of steep steps leading to their front door, they can see the Allegheny River. But mostly what they see are construction scars.
“In front of every house there is a trench and also then the trench extending down the whole street,” Spiher Robinson said, pointing out the fresh asphalt patches that map what’s below the pavement: the water main and service lines, which cut left and right from the street’s spine toward each house.
“And all of this has been sort of hastily filled in with asphalt that, especially in wintertime -- you know: freeze, thaw, freeze, thaw -- is coming up in big chunks. And it has been like this for almost a year,” Spiher Robinson said.
Last May, crews excavated the couple’s street to begin a scheduled water main replacement. A month later, tests revealed that lead levels in Pittsburgh’s drinking water had jumped past federal limits. With its streets already undergoing water infrastructure work, PWSA decided to use the Upper Lawrenceville site to pilot a systematic replacement of lead service lines.
Their challenge, though, was that a service line has two distinct parts: The first is owned by PWSA and runs from the water main to the curb. The second runs from the curb to a house, and belongs to the property owner. But under a Pennsylvania law called the Municipal Authorities Act, PWSA can’t touch the second piece.
“We're sort of hamstrung in what options we have to replace the the private side of the line,” said Bob Weimar, the authority’s interim director of engineering and construction.
So PWSA hatched a plan: They’d try to coordinate with homeowners so that everyone could replace their lines while PWSA had the street and sidewalks dug up.
During the Upper Lawrenceville pilot, crews found 58 lead service lines among the 340 they exhumed and replaced. Each time workers found one, PWSA hung notifications on the affected homeowner’s door and sent out a letter that said workers would leave the sidewalk open to allow residents to replace their side of the line. Eleven people wrote back to say they were interested in replacing the line. In the end, only one person did.
“We found out that people didn't feel motivated for whatever reason, whether it was a lack of money or the lack of an understanding,” Weimar said.
The fact that only one person replaced their line underscores the difficulty of coordinating a Pittsburgh-wide lead line replacement between homeowners and PWSA. Especially since around one-quarter of PWSA's 1,000 miles of water lines are lead pipes.
Charting a better course
Councilwoman Deb Gross represents Pittsburgh’s seventh district, which includes Upper Lawrenceville. She said while PWSA tried to communicate with people, it wasn’t enough. “I think it's a great question to ask whether people understood the health risk and also understood the opportunity in front of them.”
Gross is a PWSA board member, and she said the authority can do better.
“We should have confirmation of a negative," she said. "So instead of just saying ‘Well, we never heard from the resident,’ that shouldn't be good enough. If someone honestly has the option of doing their portion of the water service line, we should have it in writing that they are choosing not to.”
David Breingan, executive director of community non-profit Lawrenceville United, wonders what his organization could have done better, too. He said they tried to communicate with residents, but “it seemed like we were never reaching the right people.”
With the streets resurfaced now, Breingan said it feels like a missed opportunity.
“It was never going to be more affordable than it was when PWSA was doing their work with the street dug up," he said. "That saves homeowners a huge amount of money, so that window of affordability closed.”
Weimar stands by the success of the project: PWSA reduced the amount of lead pipe in the system and they learned how difficult it’s going to be to get private lead pipes out of homes.
The authority has budgeted more than $17 million for lead-related improvements in 2017. But it’s going to take years to rip out those pipes, he said.
Mayor Bill Peduto has said his administration will work with state legislators to empower PWSA to replace private lead lines.